Chapter 1


IN THE early morning hour, my brother sits on the

window ledge of his third floor apartment and wonders if

he’ll survive the fall. The Santa Anas have swept in, and

between gusts he closes his eyes, the bare branches click,

click against one another, the dead leaves swirl and scrape

across the street. The Santa Anas have a metallic taste, a

desert heat drying up every pore of cold sweat. Another

blast rattles the window, his boxer shorts flap, goose

pimples shiver down his legs, he climbs back inside, closes

the bedroom window, the noise from the wind and trees is


In the bathroom he splashes cold water on his face and

rinses out the metallic taste with toothpaste. Enough light

slips through the porthole window for my brother to see

himself in the mirror. Though he can’t hear me, I talk to

him. Sometimes he talks to me, never really out loud, more

up in his head to himself, but I feel he must know I’m

listening. When I’m with him, I try to stay away from

mirrors; not that he’ll notice me, I have no reflection to

anyone other than myself, but rather it makes me sad that

he always looks down and off to the side. Though he is my

brother, sometimes I catch myself starring at his face; his

cut like cat features, high cheekbones, long eyelashes, and

eyes that are set perfectly apart can make a girl forget

 her train of thought. He doesn’t realize that though, as

he sees his face is more inspired by a Picasso.

He sits at the edge of the tub, cool tiles beneath his

bare feet; a siren echoes, and his left leg begins to pump

up and down. He cups his hands over his ears and tries not

to think about me in the hospital. Twigs, that was my

nickname my dad gave me, because I was so little and

skinny, not in an abnormal bony-kneed kind of way, more

like a gymnast when they are just beginning.

Since it was my brother’s first time in a hospital, he

chose his blue blazer with gold buttons, a new tie, slacks,

and loafers. I’m three years younger than he is, but my

brother thought I was a million times more courageous. I

held on in a coma for two weeks, my bone-white skin, caved-

in cheeks, and eyelids all paper-thin. It felt like the

moment right before you fall off to sleep, when you want to

move but you can’t, even though you can hear and smell

things around you, like the steady tock-tock-tock of the

heart monitor, and the bitter odor of rubbing alcohol. My

tiny body felt lost in the starched sheets. My brother

thought, how could they fit so many tubes into a nine-year-


My dad was unshaven, dark circles stamped under his

eyes, and the same sweater he wore smelled of pots of

coffee he drank through out the day. My mom and dad never

brought my brother Chris to see me. Though they told him

what happened, he was five and really couldn’t understand.

Mom stood up from a chair at the foot of the bed and

intercepted my brother to fix his tie. Her makeup was

skillfully done, her flowing hair highlighted and freshly

cut just below her ears, her new blouse she had bought that

day gave her the added lift she needed to visit her

daughter for a third day. But it was the whiff of Scotch

on her breath that made my brother tilt his head back and

to the side.

My dad gently placed his hand on my shoulder to tell

me my brother was here. When I didn’t respond, a swell of

heat curled up from my brother’s stomach, and he swallowed

back the taste of vomit. He rushed to the bathroom, shoved

a couple towels along the bottom of the door, grabbed the

cold rim of the toilet bowl, and quietly threw up. For a

while he sat, counting the tiles along the floor to keep

from passing out. He wanted to go away; that’s what he

called it “going away” in his head. When he heard the

doorknob jiggle, and my mom called his name, he got up to

rinse out his mouth with cold water. He noticed in the

mirror he wasn’t crying; his skin had turned ash-gray. He

kept slapping his cheeks, trying to get some color, before

he went back out. He wanted to get the specks of vomit off

his new tie, but he stained it by rubbing it in with a wet

paper towel. Mom squeezed passed the blockage of towels,

closed the door and folded the towels.

"If you don’t leave it alone you’ll only make it

worse," she said, buttoning up his blue blazer.

He didn’t listen to her.

"Put your tie in your pocket and don’t tell your


"It was just an accident," he said.

She followed him over to the bed where Dad put his arm

around his shoulder and never asked what happened to his


"Tara, look who’s here," he said. "It’s your brother


Though my brother didn’t say anything, it felt good

for him to hold my warm hand. Then he tried hard to think

of some memories; he tried very hard, but they felt

misplaced by someone other than himself. For a moment he

heard my playful laughter, like children running in a

schoolyard, giggling while spreading their arms and

imagining catching currents of air. In the dense silence

that now knotted my family together, my brother searched

for other memories of me to keep near. Again the forms

flickered and twisted and never righted as the years

passed. The images play back like a movie, the scenes have

hiccups, as if the frames have been chopped out, and some

days, when it’s really bad an entire reel feels like it’s

missing. He leaned in closer, listening to my breathing

sink to a slow rhythm; sink so far down he had to dig to

hear me exhale. I know he wanted to shake me and wake me

up; come on Twigs, but my hand was so pale, so limp. He

stood there for what felt like forever before my mom pried

us apart. After my dad drove him home, he said he could

come back another day, but my brother never did.

My brother grabs some covers off his bed and curls up

on the cool bathroom floor, the sound of my laughter rocks

him to sleep.

WHEN I died, I didn’t see the long dark tunnel with a

bright light at the end that would take me up above the

clouds. For a moment, I thought it was just a dream, being

in a coma and all, because when I awoke, I was back at my

Victorian home on North Main Street in Honeoye Falls New

York, a one-stop-light town named after the Seneca Indians,

and the waterfall that once powered the old saw mill. I

was sitting on our front porch, wearing my favorite jeans

with the red and yellow flowers embroidered along the

cuffs. I knew what had happened when I saw Father Otto

coming up our walkway, carrying his leather bound bible. He

never arrived with a bible. He liked to visit my mom after

we had dinner and try to get her to go to Sunday mass.

Instead, he would join her for a Scotch and soda or brown

water as we called it, and as the evening went on their

drinks became a darker shade of amber. My brother’s

friends would joke that Father Otto liked to sit close to

them during Sunday School, though he never touched them,

they’d imitate his voice by lisping.

On that day when Father Otto walked up, he looked down

in my direction, and I thought since he was a priest he

must be able to see me, but he went right passed me without

saying hi. Though I realized I didn’t know much about

where I was, I felt as though I was near and far all at

once, as though I was waiting without knowing where I was

going. Even now I don’t like to think about what happened

next; I slowly felt myself becoming a stranger. Then I

thought that maybe I didn’t exist; I decided if I just

stayed home something or somebody would probably come along

and tell me where I should go next.

After the second day, I had a feeling no one was

going to come, which was fine with me I didn’t want to go

anywhere. That afternoon I met Charlene. Char-Char I

called her. She was riding by on her bike, and had been

the only person during the first days that had noticed me.

She was a year older and I told her my name was Tara, but

everyone called me Twigs. She had crimped hair that her

mother helped her with every morning. About two years ago,

Char-Char drowned in her backyard above ground pool, when

she fell in and the pool cover twisted around her. I

remember overhearing my mom talking about it on the phone,

though I didn’t know who she was, news like that travels in

a small town. It just happened that Char-Char’s mom was

inside vacuuming, and never heard her scream, and Char-

Char’s been with her mom ever since that day.

It was a relief that I didn’t have to go into details

about how I was hit by a drunk driver, walking home one

night with my brother after school. She said; word travels

fast in a small town. I nodded. She asked if the driver

survived? I told her no and that’s the last we ever talked

about it.

I was so glad to meet Char-Char, and that I had a

friend. I also knew my brother would be happy that I

wasn’t alone. After she explained where we were, I asked

if I was being punished, like grounded to my room?

“No one does anything bad to you.” When Char-Char

spoke she fidgeted with her little silver studded earrings,

the same pair I wished my mom let me get. “You can do

everything you did before.”

“I can stay with my family?”

“Sure you can.”

I hugged her I was so happy, but when her arms stayed

at her sides, I stopped jumping up and down.

“For how long?”

Char-Char shrugged her shoulders.

“As long as I want?”

“I guess.”

“But we’re supposed to go up above the clouds.” I

pointed to the sky. “Where Heaven is.”

She didn’t bother to look up.

“Are you sure we’re really here?”

She looked a little confused by my question.

“I mean that we exist.”

“I can see you and you can see me.”

She had a point.

“Do you want to play in my backyard?”

“I have to go,” she said. “My mom isn’t feeling good.”

Right then I understood why there was no excitement in

Char-Char. A year after Char-Char’s accident, her parents

got divorced and her father remarried. Her mom lived alone

in the house, and some days she called in sick to work,

when she was really just too depressed to get out of bed.

The day after Char-Char’s accident her mom pulled Char-

Char’s jean skirt out of the laundry hamper. The skirt was

part of Char-Char’s favorite outfit that went over her

leggings she wore when she went roller-skating. She had

new Sketcher roller skates with blinking red toe-stops.

Her mom stuffed the skirt in her shoulder bag and carried

it with her. For the first year she never washed it, and

when she was alone, sometimes she liked to gently hold it

up to her face, breathe in, unable to explain the smell,

she closed her eyes and remembered it was her daughter.

IN THE darkness my brother jerks awake to the steady

beep of his alarm clock, cool tiles beneath him, he goes to

his bed. It’s six a.m. The cab will be here any minute to

take him to LAX. He throws on a clean shirt, jeans, and

work boots, grabs his duffel bag, and practically leaps out

the door.

Celebrity Cab’s headlights drift across whitewashed

stucco buildings from Mediterranean courtyards to

condominiums with underground parking structures. My

brother lives in one of many post-war housing units. The

avocado-colored shutters and curved two-person balconies

overlook patches of green lawns. The cab driver wheezes

and shimmies to dislodge his round body from behind the

steering wheel. When he lifts my brother’s lightly packed

duffel bag, he labors like a saddled camel reaching its

full height. He refuses my brother’s help. I get in with

my brother and he tells the cab driver what airline. When

the cab driver leans back to fasten his seatbelt, the air

in the front seat squeezes out like a sigh. "I love

Hollywood, all year like summer." He has a Russian accent.

The name on his hack license has too many consonants for my

brother to pronounce. "When your age I was in army." He

doesn’t use his blinker when he turns onto La Cienega

Boulevard. "I come from my country for the sun," he says.

"But I leave my two boys."

The taxi stops suddenly, pressing my brother and me up

against the front seat. He almost runs a red light. I

tighten my seatbelt, but my brother has forgotten to fasten

his, and he shifts closer to the window while the cab

driver rambles about his life.

The light turns green.

"Your hair short like soldier," he says.

"I’m an actor."

"What kind acting you do?" He excitedly adjusts his

Kangol camp; it has a dime-sized hole in the back.

It’s too early in the morning for my brother to talk

about it; he gives a vague answer, this and that, hoping

the driver will get the point.

"You look like you got a lot going on, like something

interior. I drive cab for long time." He swivels around

to look at my brother. "Good actor have something


My brother tells him to please keep his eyes on the


"Yes, you’re right, I talk too much, terrible burden.

In my country it got me trouble."

He doesn’t say anything more, until he tries to beat

another light at Pico, where there’s a yellow sign for

school children crossing.

"Slow down," my brother raises his voice. "God damn

it, slow down." The cab blows by the sign. "Didn’t you

see that sign?"

"Yes, we make light. No officers." He makes the

sound of a siren. "Never have accident."

My brother doesn’t want to start an argument, and end

up in an accident, so he opens the production package with

the crew list, script and shooting schedule. The cab

driver glances over his shoulder and reads the title aloud,

"Two Hearts. Ally McDonald, big star. I read about it in

Variety. Big studio picture."

"You read about it in Variety?"

"Yes, I’m screenwriter," he says. "I have couple

projects for development. Never put all eggs in one

basket." He gives a wink in the rear-view. "I got one

project for Ally. Academy Award. Maybe you get it to her


Oh, no, here comes the pitch.

"We get together when you finish film. There’s nice

part for you," he opens the glove compartment. "Let me

give you card."

Paperbacks pour out on How to Sell A Screenplay, How

to Make A Million Dollars Without Trying, Good-bye To Fear

Of Success. A half-pint of Black Velvet anchors loose

script pages. With one hand on the wheel he reaches under

the dash; the car swerves over the solid dividing line, the

tires squeal, and white headlights burst across the

windshield. In seconds he levels the cab off while the

high-pitched scream of a car horn whizzes by. I’ve

forgotten to breathe, it’s coming back, inhale then exhale.

My brother is clutching the tops of his thighs. Then he

hands my brother his card that says, "Screenwriter."

My brother tells him, “thanks,” and finally the cab

driver does the speed limit. A piece of silence fills the

cab as we pass silhouetted oil pump jacks, pumping

Hollywood for its black gold. The silence continues as we

ride through the darkness.


THEY’VE PUT my brother up in a suite at the Sheraton

on Fisherman’s Wharf. He lies on the king-size bed,

sunlight filtering through the drapes, widening across the

deep carpet; his fingertips are black from reading the

morning paper delivered to his room. For the third day,

the call sheet has him on "will notify," which means he

can’t stray far from the hotel. Doubt my brother will have

to work, word from the set is Ally’s been difficult. He

roams through the separate living room, flicks the lights

on and off in the bathroom, shuffles over to the drapes,

peeks out at the wonderful view of the bay. The red

message light on the phone hasn’t blinked this morning, and

he wishes he had someone to call to go and hang out with.

He checks his phone, no calls, and no texts. They’ve given

him a per diem to spend. It’s enough to dine out three

times a day with a friend. The money is stiff and smells

new and he crinkles it up in his jean pocket and slips away

to find a place to eat.

At the Buena Vista Café, my brother decides not to put

his name down on the list for a table. He doesn’t feel so

alone sitting at the counter where orders are shouted into

the kitchen. The heavy aroma of freshly ground coffee and

roasted beans makes the place feel warm and cozy. He

orders a cup, and passes on breakfast, which he never


Outside, the chiming bells of a cable car lets off a

handful of passengers. When my brother was two years old

he called the Strassenbahn in Dresden, where we were born,

"ding-dings." Our mom grew up after World War II, and

after the Americans rebuilt the city. I read about how the

bombings caused a firestorm that burned for a week. She

really never talks about her childhood, and the stories of

what her grandparents went through. Even when my brother

asks, Alex is the only one in the family that asks; she

doesn’t talk about it much. He does remember her saying

that the first light she ever saw was in a movie house.

When I was a few months old we came to America, and

according to my mom, my brother lost his fluent German on

our flight. My dad stayed behind to finish his military

services. My brother remembers that Mom drank Bloody

Marys, and he told her that the wing was falling off. So

to keep him occupied she gave him crayons to draw the view

from the window. When we landed in Rochester, my mom asked

our new Oma and Opa in English where a bathroom was to

change my diapers; my brother had to pee so badly, he was

clutching himself. "That little boy speaking German is no

grandson of ours," Oma said. “I can barely understand

them.” She turned to her husband, who said nothing. A

warm current gushed down my brother’s legs and spotted his

new leather lace up shoes my mom had bought just for the

trip. Mom told him, “not to cry in front of them, this is

America, and they’d find a toilet.” It was too late, he

wet himself right there, and would have to sit in the back

seat of my grandparents’ car, head down, smelling like

urine, until Mom could unpack, and change his clothes.

After that day, Mom never spoke German to my brother

again, and we never shared any stories with Oma and Opa

about our arrival in America. My brother didn’t lose

everything on our flight. He still remembers the word for


Clang, clang, the cable car passes, and a little boy

and girl, no more than ten years old, race in front of

their mom towards the cafe door. She yells, "Keep an eye

on your sister." Then a girl around my brother’s age

enters, wearing faded jeans and a flannel shirt under a

man’s oversized wool jacket. She counts her change and

pays for two coffees to go. While she waits, she glances

at him, pretending not to notice him; she scans the café as

if she may find someone she knows. Girls are always doing

this around my brother; their heads slightly tilted up just

above his eye-line, they do a 180 survey of the room,

thinking they wont get caught checking out my brother. She

finishes her sweep of the café, and now she’s waiting for

my brother to notice her. To my surprise he realizes she’s

looking at him⎯he never realizes these things⎯he drops his

eyes to his coffee cup, embarrassed that something may be

out of place with him. I’m about to kick the bottom of his

stool to get him to look up, but I know he never gives

himself enough credit. He glances sideways at her; she

smiles, turns up on her tiptoes, and walks out with her to

go order. She waits outside the glass door, so he can see

her. His scalp becomes tight, and his heart thuds against

his chest. By the time he thinks of some opening line,

she’s kissing a guy, her age, and hands him the other

coffee. My brother swivels his legs under the counter, and

glances back at her, and gets a knot in his head, when she

waves good-bye. Though I’m unable to whisper words of

advice in my brother’s ear, I know this moment of

difficulty he’s having understanding why that girl needed

to be admired by him will be short lived, and he’ll

eventually meet a girl that shows herself as more than half

a promise. I’d like to see him meet a girl, but I have to

admit, I don’t think any girl is good enough for him, and

if I were alive they would have a hard time getting past my

screening process that I would, in one way or another, make

my brother aware of.

Between breakfast and lunch the shouting of orders has

stopped, and the silence around him deepens until he

realizes he’s the only customer in the cafe. He could hang

out on the set, but if you’re not working, it’s a lot of

standing around waiting for a single scene to be set-up and

shot. The first time I went to a set with my brother, I

couldn’t believe how many hours it took to set up a shot.

They only shoot a couple of pages and then it’s right back

to standing around waiting for the next set-up. Instead of

ordering another cup of coffee to keep him company, he

leaves a twenty five percent tip, and wanders the hills of

San Francisco in search of the highest elevation.